Burton Mere RSPB Reserve - 20 Jan 18

Today I visited the RSPB Reserve at Burton Mere on the Wirral. Continuous slight rain and low cloud made for poor visibility an some less than inspiring pictures. The best of the bunch included this fly-by of three Whooper Swans. They typically show more yellow on the base of the bill than the other species of ‘wild’ swan that visits the UK – the Bewick’s (or Tundra) Swan. Not easy to tell at this range and in these conditions. However Bewick’s Swans are significantly smaller than other swans at that would have been obvious.

This fine drake Teal came close-enough to provide some colour.

Certainly a place to see egrets: here a Little Egret showing plenty of breeding condition ‘aigrettes’ hanging from the breast and over the tail. The blue-grey lores (above the base of the bill) will change to orange when breeding starts.

A different bird: ‘aigrettes’ only showing on the back of this bird.

A Grey Heron standing sentry.

Other than flocks of Lapwing the commonest wader here at this time of year is Black-tailed Godwit. In the foreground a first-winter bird with pale fringes to its feathers. Behind an adult – they can, as here, look surprisingly grey.

A group of juveniles. The bird in the right foreground is showing its ‘black tail’ and white rump.

A single juvenile feeding.

Moments later it opens its bill. I am always surprised to see that waders can open their bill mostly just at the end. It is essential that species feeding by probing can do this – they need to able to grab food detected deep underground.

The only other wader I managed to catch on camera (apart from the Lapwings) was this distant Dunlin. Easy to identify by its dark belly patch in the breeding season: less so at this date. The size and the proportionately long and slightly decurved bill are the best clues.

Later I moved to Parkgate, which overlooks the salt marshes along the Dee Estuary. High tide is best, though today was a neap tide and birds were still too far away. This first-winter Great Black-backed Gull made a fly-by. Can be identified by size and lumbering flight. In the photo we see the large all-dark bill and relatively unmarked head. Another ID feature is that the dark trailing edge to the wing ‘disappears’ on the inner primaries. This would not happen on a Lesser Black-backed Gull which would also show two rows of dark feathers on the trailing edge of the wing – the greater coverts as well as the secondaries. A Herring Gull would have noticeably paler outer parts to the inner primaries – called the ‘window’.

Good to see were the typically chaotic flocks of Lapwing. Have you ever tried counting a flock? They are forever changing formation and direction.

Here we go: back again.

Perhaps we were right first time.

Best sighting was a VERY distant Marsh Harrier. We see (against a rather industrial landscape) a very typical silhouette as it hunts over the reeds. We can just about make out the pale head on this bird.

A rather scruffy bird moulting its tail-feathers. Some pale in the primary coverts from below perhaps suggests an immature male, but at this range and light conditions it is not possible to be certain.

Even more distant! The bird was joined by another and they sparred for a while. It may be my imagination but the bird on the right seems to be carrying prey. During courtship the males of most birds of prey will present prey items to their intended partners and pass it to them on the wing to show they will be capable of providing food for the brooding female and eventual off-spring (a bit like buying/preparing your girlfriend a meal and exchanging forkfuls of food?)

(Ed Wilson)

Mute Swans at Priorslee Lake - 2017

Here is a montage I have put together of the Mute Swan cygnets at Priorslee Lake this year. (Mark Williams)


Venus Pool - 23 Nov 17

On a bright, brisk and breezy morning I decided on a visit to the SOS Reserve at Venus Pool. All these photos taken from the public hide.

A pair of Greylag Geese have a talk (the bi-coloured bill on the left-hand bird is shadow). A pair of Eurasian Wigeon behind.

Three Eurasian Wigeon: the drake on the left is odd in that it shows a very prominent green patch behind the eye, recall a drake Teal. The drake on the right shows a hint of a small green patch. Most literature illustrates the eye with a dark surround but makes no mention that this can gloss green.

The right hand of this pair shows a hint of green behind the eye: the left-hand bird shows no such hint.

The ‘green-eyed’ bird is in the lead here. The bird behind shows a hint. I recall taking a photo of an eclipse drake at the lake earlier this Autumn that puzzled me by showing this feature. Strange.

Get the angle right and it really glows.

The green on a drake Teal is much larger than shown on ‘our’ Eurasian Wigeon and has a yellow surround. The duck Teal is very plain: we can just see the green speculum though the white side of the tail is often noticeable at long range.

A fine drake Teal indeed. To reprise my Priorslee Lake is it blue or green discussion if the patch on the head is green then the speculum just visible it clearly blue to my eyes. Not what the books tell us!

To carry on the ‘gloss’ discussion even adult Cormorants when viewed from the correct angle. We see it here on the ‘shoulder’ of the middle bird here (Lapwings in foreground).

After fishing time to hang the wings out.

A Carrion Crow in full-cry, literally!

A real surprise was this Chiffchaff that flew past the hide and stayed in view just long-enough for me to get a record shot. A very yellow-looking bird: after the Autumn moult they are generally yellow-toned but this seems rather extreme. Perhaps just the low sun?

A jaunty Wren.

A Blackbird at the haws. It is easy to see why some birds are misidentified as Song Thrushes. Separate this juvenile by the reddish-brown tone on the breast – yellowish on a Song Thrush. The lack of marks on the face. And the ‘spots’ are white smudges on a dark background whereas a Song Thrush always show dark spots on a pale background.

Goldfinches have pointed bills that enable them to extract seeds from teasel heads, as here.

Head-on Goldfinches show a surprisingly dark mask.

Here we see the marking on the wings and tail. Note that the rump of Goldfinches is white: we usually think that a white rump on a finch means ‘Bullfinch’: it often does as it is much more prominent on that species.

Why does it not hurt its feet standing on a teasel? (note the rain streaks).

Small finch with grey in the tail: “Linnet” I thought. But why is it so heavily streaked? Juvenile? And why does it have a pale bill? Ah – it is in fact a Lesser Redpoll.

Even the back is well-streaked. And upon reflection there is no white on the side of the tail.

Obligingly it turned around and we can see the red ‘poll’ – crown. We also see the ‘Hitler-moustache’ (am I allowed to say that in these PC days?) that eliminates any possibility of similar but unlikely Twite.

Hard to see the red ‘poll’ from some angles”

RSPB Burton Mere - 12 Oct 17

Here is just part of the excellent RSPB reserve at Burton Mere on the Wirral, looking here towards the Welsh foothills.

The view is somewhat ‘industrial’ in places but the birds don’t seem to care.

A speciality of the Wirral Estuary area is the wintering Pink-footed Geese that leave their breeding grounds in Iceland to winter with us. Not all have arrived as yet but here are four birds, two of them hanging a ‘pink leg’. Smaller than Canada Geese or Greylag Geese.

This is the type of goose party we are used to seeing – Canada Geese with the white chin-straps – just five here; and the smaller Greylag Geese with the yellow/orange bills and pale in the upper forewing. Any Pink-footed Geese would have mostly dark bills and a less pale area in the forewing.

As they bank the light really catches the pale in the upper forewings of the Greylags.

And note the rather more extensive white in the upper-tail on Greylags. This can be a useful ID feature when a flock is flying directly away from you.

Not an easy bird to recognise in this plumage: this is a first-winter Shelduck. The white at the base of the bill draws attention from the more ‘normal’ features of the chestnut in the wing and the bottle-green of the head.

A party of Shoveler in flight.

Here two ducks and two drakes.

Well it is a Cattle Egret so you would expect to find it with cattle. Seems to have found a tasty frog or toad to eat. This species bred at this reserve for the first time this year. Last year birds present in Autumn moved on when the cattle were brought indoors for the winter. Clearly they returned once the cattle were put out again in the Spring.

Because it is a long way away and fighting its lunch it is not easy to see the detail. Separate this species from Little Egret by the yellow bill and the ‘jowl’ under the bill when seen in silhouette.

Two waders to get to grips with. There are some clues to help identification. The head is rather small; the neck is rather slender; the orange-based bill is of medium length; and the legs are orange rather than, say, Redshank red. The most helpful clue for me however is the way the rather large feathers are ‘ruffled’ by the breeze. They are Ruff. (that is not why they are called Ruff – that is because the males get an extraordinary and colourful ruff of neck feathers in the breeding season, but it help keep the name in mind) [the other birds are Lapwing of course].

Note the neat pale edges to those large back feathers.

Joining one of the Ruffs and Lapwings is a wader with a long bill – a Black-tailed Godwit. These winter in some numbers on the reserve and the estuary. This bird shows orangey tone on the neck which tells us it is a first winter bird. The similar-sized Bar-tailed Godwit has a slightly upturned bill (and would be unlikely at this date anyway as it migrates through rather than over winters).

And here is a closer Bar-tailed Godwit. Note the central back feathers are uniformly grey as they all will be when the moult to winter plumage is complete. The other feathers are retained juvenile feathers – the orange was on the neck ages this bird.

Another view: note how it can open the bill tip.

Here in close-up we see the tongue at work too.

An adult with a grey neck behind the orange-washed first-winter bird.

Here the orange-washed first-winter Black-tailed Godwit feeds in front of a feeding (Common) Teal – we see its green speculum. Just a few new barred feathers of this drake have grown so far.

Another wader puzzle. The Lapwing give useful size comparison that leads to the identification of our smallest wader – Little Stint. There are several similar species, none of which is at all common and certainly not likely in October.

A Green Sandpiper. Somewhat larger and darker on the back than a Common Sandpiper. It lacks the white extending up the shoulder. Shows fine spotting in the edges of the wing feathers. A few of these birds stay all winter in ice-free habitats even around Telford.

Another view with the exposure rather better for the bird – if not the background.

A circling Peregrine Falcon caused havoc amongst the ducks the waders, many of whom took to the sky. It is not true they would be safer on the ground – I was watching a group of waders through a telescope in Cornwall on one occasion when one of the birds ‘disappeared’ and the adjacent birds hardly noticed the Peregrine shoot through and take a bird standing alongside them.

And here are some of the Lapwings panicking.

Despite their distance these two birds are easy to identify once you know the species well. A male (on the left) and female Stonechat. Nothing else has this ‘jizz’ when sitting up scanning for prey.

Not the best of backgrounds! The Common Darters – here a male – were basking in the warmth from the sun on the boardwalk that is covered in a metal grid to prevent slipping in wet weather.

(Ed Wilson)